Monday, January 31, 2011

The Bridge Club at Lawndale

The Bridge Club is a four-person performance group--they are Annie Strader, Christine Owen, Emily Bivens and Julie Wills. They did a performance at Lawndale last Friday. Each member was dressed as a kind of laboratory worker. The costumes (basically identical) consisted of dresses, plastic protective clothing, and high heels (with plastic protective pieces protecting their shoes). Each member wore a stiff, old-fashioned wig. They didn't look like modern-day lab techs, but had kind of an antique, 1960s look.

In the center of the room were several shelves with large identical glass containers. On either side of the shelves, which could be accessed from either side, were tables. One table had a large tub filled with milk on it. The other had a tub of oil. Beside the tables were piles of random objects. With extremely deliberate, somnolent motions, the women would carefully pick items up, examine them, dip them in the tubs, then carry them over to the glass jars. It was as if they were doing experiments on the effects of oil or milk on everyday objects.


The Bridge Club, Natural Resources, performance, 2010

The whole thing was mystifying yet fascinating. The details mattered. The indifference they expressed toward the viewer was important. Their dreamlike movements, like sleepwalkers. The high-heels encased in their protective plastic. The wigs. A power drill dunked in oil. I was entranced by the accumulation of bizarre detail.

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The Bridge Club, Natural Resources, performance, 2010

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The Bridge Club, Natural Resources, performance, 2010

The one bad thing about this performance was its statement. I wish artists would just say no when asked for a statement. Or in the case of Natural Resources, the Bridge Club should have come up with a statement that was as enigmatic as the performance. Instead, we got this:
Natural Resources [...] investigates conflicting human relationships with and within the natural world through the use of two natural substances: milk and petroleum oil. [...] Harvested or extracted from our natural surroundings for human sustenance or consumption, both offer metaphors for political or politicized human interactions with the natural world as relate[d] to the natural and built environment, human and family relations, agriculture and animal husbandry, food and other resource production, biology and sexuality, ecology, and resource depletion.
I would have greatly preferred to not know what the Bridge Club thought of about oil and milk as metaphors. Statements like this tend to drain a performance of its mystery and drama. This statement keeps Natural Resources from being autonomous--it becomes merely about something.

I like to think there is more there. Nothing they wrote above can explain this:

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The Bridge Club, Natural Resources, performance, 2010



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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Some Photos from the Natasha Bowdoin show at CTRL

I meant to review Natasha Bowdoin's exhibit but have been unable to make the time to do it justice. Fortunately, Douglas Britt wrote such a nice review of it that I feel like I don't have to write my own review. 
Bowdoin, 29, proves she deserves the real estate on her first Houston solo outing with dazzling cut-paper drawings that achieve a type of literary time travel. While Bowdoin came of age during the Internet boom, her sources include authors from the classics of print such as Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, whose words she laboriously transcribes to make shadow-box versions of illuminated manuscripts that defy easy reading.("Natasha Bowdoin's Cut-Paper Drawings Take CTRL by Storm," Douglas Britt, 29-95, January 26, 2011)
I'm off the hook. But still I want to show you what I find so pleasing about her work. Here are some of the images from Bowdoin's exhibit, which you can see through February 19 at CTRL.

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Natasha Bowdoin, I Hear Your Words Like Black Hungry Birds, ink and pencil on paper, 2010

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Natasha Bowdoin, Dreamtiger 3, ink, gouache and pencil on cut paper, 2010

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Natasha Bowdoin, Not the Jaguar, ink, gouache and pencil on cut paper, 2010

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Natasha Bowdoin, Dreamtiger 4, ink, gouache and pencil on cut paper, 2010

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Natasha Bowdoin, Contrariwise, ink, gouache and pencil on cut paper, 2010 

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Natasha Bowdoin, Contrariwise detail, ink, gouache and pencil on cut paper, 2010 



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Elaine Bradford at Vinson Neighborhood Library

Vinson Neighborhood Library is located on Fuqua in the far south. It's just inside the Beltway, in a neighborhood I have never visited. It's a weird part of town--if you drive north on Almeda from there, you will see undeveloped land and pasturage. But there are plenty of single family homes and apartments near the library, which also shares a building with a multi-service center.The way the building is set up, you will see Elaine Bradford's whimsical installation whether you are visiting the library or the multi-service center.

I like it when Houston art ends up way outside the usual locations. Otherwise, it's so concentrated inside the Loop. Anyway, I took a little field trip out to the Vinson Neighborhood Library and snapped a few photos. You can read about Bradford's library project here. And you can see many more photos of the installation here.

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Charles Krafft Is Coming to Houston

As I have mentioned a few times before on this blog, I lived in Seattle in the early 90s for about four years, followed by a year in Portland, Oregon. (Portlandia is a treat for me.) I got tangentially involved in the Seattle art scene then, and one of the people I met was Charles Krafft. When I first met him, he was primarily a painter, highly influenced by local Seattle art god Morris Graves. (A town has to count itself as lucky if it has Morris Graves and Mark Tobey as founding fathers of its art scene.) But in the early 90s, Krafft had become interested in employing what seemed like a kitsch craft--delftware--ironically. It may have seemed like just a one-off chuckle at first, but it has turned into his primary means of expression. And in using delft ceramics as a starting point, Krafft has turned himself into a serious craftsman (with a name like Krafft, it seems inevitable).

His work will be part of the exhibit Momento Mori at PG Contemporary (opening on February 5), along with work by Kenn Coplan and Wayne Gilbert. Gilbert and Krafft have one macabre similarity--they both use human remains in their work. This is going to be a very interesting exhibit. I encourage folks to come check it out. Meanwhile, here's a great video portrait of Krafft.





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Scrapdaddy at the Artcar Museum

Mark David Bradford, aka Scrapdaddy, has been a major part of the art car scene in Houston for years. The Artcar Museum is hosting a retrospective of his amazing work--metal sculptures, some of them kinetic. Bradford is a master with hydraulics. But beyond the mechanical cleverness, Bradford creates beautiful textures and surfaces with the scrap metal he uses. This is an exhibit you don't want to miss. The video below gives you a feel of opening night.





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Invisible Curator: Trophy Rooms

I think we can safely say that when human beings started hunting for sport, they probably started displaying their kills around the same time. The palaces of the ancient world were filled with the skins of animals taken in the hunt. Taxidermy developed (according to Wikipedia) in the 18th and 19th century. It was simultaneously used by hunters and naturalists--an overlapping category in those days.

Lane Hagood's Black Snake Salon is his tribute to those rooms full of stuffed specimens, put together by amateur naturalists and hunters.

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Lane Hagood, Black Snake Salon, drawings and paintings on paper installed in a hallway, 2010

The naturalist implied by Black Snake Salon is one who, obviously, specialized in snakes. Most of Hagood's art deals with themes of collections of things--trophy rooms, curio cabinets, private museums, etc. I'll be writing more about this exhibit, "The Museum of Eterna" at The Joanna, in a subsequent post. But when I saw this room, the Invisible Curator in my mind started whispering. She reminded me of this piece:


James Drake, Trophy Room, fabricated steel, 1982

This is an environment built by James Drake. It is showing at the Station Museum right now, but I think today (January 30) is the last day you can see it. Hagood really celebrates the mentality of the collector in his pieces, including Black Snake Salon. Drake is a little more ambiguous--his work reeks of danger and power.

But the Invisible Curator wasn't done with me. She reminded me that I had recently seen a real trophy room that was pretty mind-blowing. 

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Game Den, house at 12930 Memorial Dr.,  Houston, TX

This is a room in a house on Memorial Drive, just outside the beltway in Houston. This is my neighborhood, more-or-less. This house has always been an object of curiosity because it is so  grandiose and over-the-top. But until this week, few of us had ever seen photos of the interior. But Houston's great real estate blog Swamplot dug some up. As extreme as this room seems, it's just par for the course in this house, which can only be described as completely insane. So insane that it crosses over from totally tasteless to fascinating. I can't decide if I love it or hate it. The Game Den certainly seems like the kind of thing that James Drake was satirizing, but I suspect that Lane Hagood would approve of the obsessiveness of it.



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Monty Sheldon's Team Steroids

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Monty Sheldon, Team Steroids, paint on a softball, 2010

Monty Sheldon is an artist from Portland, Oregon whose medium is painted baseballs. He belongs more to the sports memorabilia world than the art world, but even if you aren't a baseball nut, the diabolical perversity of a baseball painted with the names and faces of the steroids scandal is clever and amusing. At least it is to me!

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Monty Sheldon, Team Steroids, paint on a softball, 2010

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Monty Sheldon, Team Steroids, paint on a softball, 2010

See more of Monty Sheldon's baseball art at his website.More shots of the Team Steroids ball are on his Facebook page. More Sheldon art can be seen here and here.



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Friday, January 28, 2011

Vik Muniz's Waste Land

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Vik Muniz in the Jardim Gramacho

Last night I saw Waste Land, the documentary about artist Vik Muniz spending two years in the Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill (the place where Rio de Janeiro's trash goes). He worked with a group of garbage pickers for an art project. When I think of Vik Muniz, I think of a guy who draws pictures with really unusual pigments. Chocolate syrup, for example.

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Vik Muniz, cover of Tribalistas, 2002

This was the cover of an album by a Brazilian supergroup, Tribalistas (Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown). I'm listening to it right now to get in the mood to write this.

Vik Muniz has never been my favorite Brazilian artist. (That honor belongs to Ernesto Neto.) There is something kind of gimmicky about his work. Look, not only can I draw pretty good, but I can do it in chocolate! I call this kind of art "stunt art."

Despite my judgment, Muniz is about the most successful Brazilian artist in the world. But he was feeling a bit alienated from his success. A guy from a lower middle class background who manage by a combination of luck, hard work, and talent to become a rich, successful artist--you start to think about the people left behind. The people who didn't have your luck or your talent. So he decided to work with the garbage pickers, to see if he could create a project that would help them in some way.

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Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos (aka Tiaõ) posing as David's Marat in a bathtub picked out of the garbage

Among the people he chose for his project was Tiaõ (in my experience, virtually every Brazilian I have ever known has some nickname. Tiaõ's real name is Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos). He runs an association of garbage pickers that negotiates prices with recyclers. Garbage picking is a disgusting job, but it is an actual job--these guys are going through and picking up recyclable materials, removing tons of garbage every day. Tiaõ is a self-made politician--he set up the Association of Recycling Pickers at Jardim Gramacho from scratch. The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula), started out in a similar way, so who knows where Tiaõ will end up. I think Muniz probably figured that the best way to help the pickers was to help someone who was already doing a lot to help them. Using his "Marat" photograph of Tiaõ, Muniz created an enormous portrait made of garbage and dirt.


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Vik Muniz, looking down on Tiaõ as Marat


(This is, of course, based on David's 1793 painting, The Death of Marat.)


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Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793


Muniz also worked with other pickers and made a whole series of garbage portraits.


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portrait of Magna in progress


Once he was done making each portrait (with the help of the pickers, who he hired to be assistants), he would take enormous Polaroid prints of them. Some of these he sold at auction in London. He brought Tiaõ along. There is a funny scene where he is discussing it with his staff, whether he should bring Tiaõ. Their main argument seems to be "How you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Paree?" Muniz brutally slaps down the self-evident elitism of that argument. Still, Tiaõ is overwhelmed and weeps uncontrollably when his portrait sells for 45,000 pounds (which he gets and plows back into the picker's association).


Waste Land is a moving, powerful movie. I still think Muniz is kind of a stunt artist, but this project was incredible. 


Waste Land was nominated for an Oscar, as was Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. I wonder how often visual art documentaries have been nominated before, much less two in one year?



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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Note on John Henry at Sonja Roesch

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John Henry, sculpture in front of Sonja Roesch Gallery

John Henry is an abstract metal sculptor, belonging pretty much to the same school of sculpture as Anthony Caro and Mark Di Suvero. Henry is ten years younger that Di Suvero and twenty years younger than Caro, and presumably is a lot more active than these two. Still, it feels like he belongs to art history now. If you like welded-metal abstract sculptures (and I do), then this is a show worth seeing.

That said, I noticed something strange on opening night. You see this a lot at openings, and I know it sometimes infuriates artists and gallerists. You see people not looking at the art.

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People carefully avoiding a red John Henry sculpture

The sculptures inside the Sonja Roesch Gallery were more-or-less the same scale as the people in the gallery. So it's like they were the uncool kids who were being excluded in junior high.

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Blue John Henry sculpture being ostentatiously ignored

What's up with this? I go to openings and sometimes I feel like I'm the only guy looking at the art. But usually there will be at least a few others checking the art out. But at this show it was brutal the way the sculptures were universally avoided.

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Yellow John Henry wallflower, hopelessly waiting to be asked to dance

I felt a little sorry for them.

One other amusing thing about the John Henry exhibit was his truck.

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John Henry's pickup truck

I think pretty much every sculptor back to Bernini has had a pickup truck. It's simply the most practical vehicle for them. But I have never seen one like this, with information painted on the side. It's as if John Henry is some tradesman--a plumber or electrician. So if we accept that premise, then John Henry is a prole. Maybe that's why all the bourgeous at the opening were ignoring the sculptures--if you were a dinner guest at a friend's house, it would be considered odd if you spent your time chatting with the gardener.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

James Acord, Nuclear Artist, 1944-2011

I lived in Seattle for four years in the early 90s. For most people, that period in Seattle cultural history is remembered primarily for grunge rock, but my theory is that any city of sufficient size always has interesting art going on. Only occasionally does it break out into awareness by the rest of the world, as grunge did. Seattle's art scene, at that time, was interesting and vibrant. From my point of view, it was centered around COCA, the Center on Contemporary Art. (Unfortunately, their site doesn't contain information about exhibits prior to 2007.) At the time, it was located in a large nondescript building downtown (next to the infamous Lusty Lady), and the director was a local art impresario named Larry Reid. Reid was friends with some people in the local alternative comics community, and that's how I got to know him. And through his wonderful COCA exhibits, I got familiar with some of the most interesting Seattle-area artists. People like Charles Krafft, who will be exhibiting at PG Contemporary later this year, sound artist Trimpin, and sculptor James Acord.

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photo of James Acord by Arthur S. Aubry

The first show of Acord's I saw featured piles of orange Fiesta Ware (the orange glaze was made from uranium oxide in the innocent days before WWII), the sleeve of a nuclear fuel rod (minus the fuel), and tons of paper documentation dealing with his ultimately successful attempt to become a licensed handler of nuclear materials. As far as I can tell, Acord started off as a more-or-less traditional sculptor. He became interested in sculpting granite and learned that granite typically contained a lot of uranium (which is why your granite countertops are slightly radioactive). This fact made him more and more interested in uranium as an artistic material. He studied nuclear science, moved to Richland, Washington--near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation--cut his hair into a crew-cut and started wearing suits so he could blend in better with the nuclear engineers there. When he finally got his license--the only one ever granted to an individual--he had the license number tattooed onto the back of his neck.

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What I love about Acord's work the most is his single-minded devotion to one thing. He was eager to explore every artistic possibility of nuclear material. So his work ranged from traditional sculpture to process art. Displaying the bureaucratic documentation for getting his license is a far cry from sculpting a granite animal skull. But the granite sculptures are part of the overall project. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of the most dangerous and polluted places on Earth, and because there is so much radioactive waste there that is likely to stay there more-or-less forever, Acord designed sculptures to warn off future humans. He wanted to create objects the would still be comprehensible 500 or 1000 years from now--when humanity might no longer be literate. His spooky sculptures and designs for large-scale "warning" sculptures are unnerving massages for the future.

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James Acord, Nuclear Reliquary, 1998

James Acord died on January 9, 2011. A memorial website has been set up, and here is a video of Acord describing his obsession.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Coming to Lawndale this Spring!



Details to come!

A Matter of Wit at FotoFest

 by Robert Boyd

Gilbert Garcin and Miro Švolík make photos that are wry, charming, surreal and funny. It makes sense to put the two together. I looked at the show first without knowing anything about the artists. That's the best way to proceed, I think. But since both artists use themselves in the works--Garcin in every photo--it's hard not to construct a story for them. In Garcin's case, I thought he might be a young surrealist. By this, I mean someone who was a young artist in the waning days of surrealism as a movement. Now in his old age (in my scenario), Garcin was using an archaic form of photomontage to continue the surrealist project.


Gilbert Garcin, The Difference, silver gelatin print, 2004

But his real story is even more interesting. Now 81 years old, he didn't start taking photographs until he was 65. Far from being a young member of Andre Breton's surrealist circle, he was the director of a lamp manufacturing firm. Who can fail to be impressed that Garcin completely reinvented himself in retirement?

The photos recall the gentle surrealism of Magritte, but what I think about when I see them is Jacques Tati's M. Hulot. They are both small men (Garcin always depicts himself from a  distance within a surreal landscape) in rumpled overcoats. Garcin even avoids high technology (always M. Hulot's foil)--he could create flawless montages with Photoshop. Instead, we can see that he is physically cutting out images of himself an pasting them into place. It's a totally primitive notion of photomontage. (Even John Heartfield used an airbrush.)


Gilbert Garcin, Le Collectionneur, 2004

The results combine bold design with subtle, self-deprecating wit. This image was especially meaningful for me. If you are like me, and you collect art when you can afford it, you discover over time that your collection starts to overwhelm you. I recently had to confess to a gallerist that a piece I bought from her--a piece I love--was in my closet because I didn't have space to display it. What I didn't tell her was that it was sharing that space with dozens of other artworks.I'm not yet about to be crushed by my collection (like the Vogels were), but I will get there.


Miro Švolík, A Child Like Drawing I Made as a Grown-Up, silver gelatin print, 1989


Miro Švolík uses some of the same techniques as Garcin, but is much more sophisticated in his execution. One thing he likes to photograph (based on this exhibit) are "drawings" that are in part composed of people laying on the ground, photographed from above. Here he superimposed five photos to create one childish drawing--using a child as part of the drawing. These are delightful photos--ones that I imagine would appeal very much to small children (in addition to appealing to mom and dad). Someone should publish them as a childrens picture book!

Ironically, given this childlike appeal, many of the Švolík's photos are quite erotic--but they have a humorous kind of eroticism.



Miro Švolík, Big Woman Little Man, C-print, 2010

I blushed a little when I walked into the hall with these photos. Anytime I noticed someone else in the hallway, I felt like a little boy caught looking at Playboy. Is this an archaic feeling? Do people younger than me raised on easy electronic access to sexy images feel the same? The difference in size between the man and woman very much describes how I often feel when I am in the presence of a beautiful woman. Billy Bragg's song Sexuality contains the line "I feel a total jerk before your naked body of work." I think Švolík may be expressing a similar sentiment in his Big Woman Little Man photos.


Miro Švolík, Art History: Rousseau, silver gelatin print, 2001

These witty photocollages reinforce the "male gaze" by reminding us that whatever the great nudes in art history are, they are also naked ladies, usually drawn or painted or sculpted by men. Once again, there is something childish about it--like a little boy taken to a museum, giggling over what seems invisible to the adults he's with--that lady is naked!

Monday, January 17, 2011

What Some People in Galveston Have Done With the Trees that Ike Killed

http://swamplot.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/1302-ball-owl.jpg

http://swamplot.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/1717-ball-angels.jpg

http://swamplot.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/902-ball-mermaid.jpg

See many more amazing photos at Swamplot. The photos were taken by Candace Garcia, who has tons more of them on her Flickr page. Check them out. I'd love to know the sculptors for each of these!